Rupert The Inscrutable


By William Shawcross

Simon & Schuster -- 492pp -- $27.50

If Rupert Murdoch ever needs a contest to take the place of Wingo in his tabloid papers, here's a surefire winner. Offer $1 million to any reader who can correctly answer the question: "What makes Rupert run?"

Odds are Murdoch would never have to pay out a dime. For a new biography of the Australian media baron, British journalist William Shawcross interviewed scores of friends and foes to find the answer: "It isn't greed. It isn't even power," says the headmaster of Murdoch's grammar school. Au contraire, says one of Murdoch's lieutenants: "Rupert is too greedy and too mean. He is only interested in control and power."

Murdoch is full of such contradictions. Even those who know the soft-spoken publisher best can't agree on the motives behind his tireless pursuit of a global empire. And Shawcross, whose Sideshow was a blistering indictment of the Nixon Administration's policy toward Cambodia, settles on the tepid theory that Murdoch wanted to escape the shadow of his father, also a powerful publisher.

Forgive this weakness, however, and Murdoch can be savored as a chronicle of one man's fiery arc through the media firmament. The paucity of personal insight into Murdoch is itself revealing. For all the fuss that he has aroused in four decades of wheeling and dealing, Murdoch remains an inscrutable figure--an apostle of global communications who is a master of not telling the world what he really thinks.

What we're left with is a dizzying travelogue. Shawcross takes us on Murdoch's restless journey from Adelaide to Sydney to London to New York to Los Angeles. He shows how the 61-year-old publisher cajoled, connived, and bullied his way to ownership of many of the world's choicest media properties. Murdoch didn't discriminate: He stalked London's seamy News of the World as hungrily as the haughty Times; the scrap-py Boston Herald as fiercely as the renowned Twentieth Century-Fox studio.As an owner, Murdoch has been similarly unswerving. He took almost all his papers downmarket and served readers a steady diet of cheesecake and Bloody Marys. His New York Post published the immortal headline "Headless Body in Topless Bar." And he introduced tabloid standards to TV. His Fox Broadcasting Co. network, which gave us A Current Affair, is now pushing the bounds with a leering game show called Studs.

For these and other crimes, some members of the cultural elite will always condemn Murdoch as a philistine. In response, Murdoch could well borrow from Fox's cantankerous Bart Simpson: "Eat my shorts!" He has despised elite society ever since he got his first heavy dose of it at Oxford University in the Fifties. Today, the bare-breasted women who appear on Page 3 of Murdoch's Sun are his daily slap at British propriety.

Shawcross astutely notes that Murdoch's politics, like his populist views, have been swayed by prevailing winds. At Oxford, he kept a bust of Lenin on his mantelpiece. But by the time Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power, he had become an archconservative. In New York, where true conservatives rarely win, the Post enthusiastically endorsed Edward Koch's 1977 mayoral campaign. Thereafter, notes Shawcross, "Murdoch had a grateful friend in City Hall."

Making a friend of Thatcher was good business: Murdoch needed her to crush the London newspaper unions in 1986. Shawcross brings that episode to life, vividly illustrating the military precision and brute force Murdoch used to move his papers to a grim, computerized printing plant in East London.

Less satisfying is his account of Harold Evans' downfall as editor of The Times in 1982, barely a year after Murdoch acquired it. That's too bad, because this is the episode that set off a tempest last fall. After The New Yorker published a story suggesting that this book was less a biography than hagiography, novelist John Le Carre came to the defense of his friend Shawcross, protesting that Evans' wife, New Yorker Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown, ran the piece because the book portrayed her husband badly. Shawcross does depict Evans, now president of Random House trade group, as a ditherer. But we never quite understand whether the troubles at The Times were a result of Evans' temporizing, mixed signals from Murdoch, or both.

The author also gives short shrift to one of Murdoch's biggest errors: his decision to eschew cable TV in favor of satellite broadcasting. He notes that Murdoch missed out on the huge profits in cable but doesn't point out a further problem this misstep may create: Cable could prove to be the primary pipeline into the home for all sorts of interactive programming. With his diverse properties, Murdoch is sure to be a player in this multimedia world. His satellite service is now edging into profitability, but he may come to regret his lack of a cable pipeline.

More broadly, Murdoch seems to lack any cohesive strategy beyond ceaseless expansion. Even a scary brush with insolvency two years ago hasn't cooled his ardor. One yearns to hear Murdoch reflect a bit on the responsibilities of his enormous power. Pressed by Shawcross, Murdoch acknowledges that the creep of global media threatens to dilute local cultures. But he dismisses questions about his lowbrow fare with a quip: "You know, William Shakespeare wrote for the masses."

True. But Shakespeare gave us a glimpse into our souls. The world's reigning communications czar seems content to feed our appetites.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.